You might call avoidance being lazy, unmotivated, depressed, freaked out or disliking conflict. But if you are human, you probably know the warning signs when you start avoiding. Avoiding can become a way of life if you’re not careful – robbing you of time, relationship, money, fun and other pleasures.
Here are a few target areas and examples of avoidance that I see in my office every day:
Worklife: Your successful career requires consistent task completion, and suddenly you are online shopping like crazy.
Physical Health: There are two wakeful hours before you get ready for work and rather than going to the gym, you roll over and go back to sleep.
Relationship: A small disagreement happens and you sullenly walk away from your partner.
Social: A friend's invitation waits in your inbox and you tell yourself you’ll think about whether to attend or not – later.
Spiritual: Your yoga mat and journal sit in the corner and you daily pass them by.
Financial: Six bills sit in your mail pile. You set them aside, knowing that a simple check could pay them tomorrow.
Sound familiar? What's happening when you avoid and what can you do about it?
Avoiding is seldom a fully conscious choice.
Elizabeth Scott MS explains this frustrating tendency this way, “Avoidance coping, also known as avoidant coping, avoidance behaviors, and escape coping, is a maladaptive form of coping that involves changing our behavior to try to avoid thinking or feeling things that are uncomfortable.”
Basically avoidance is a habitual coping skill, aimed at reducing pain that is reinforced each time you do it. Sadly, the more you avoid the parts of your life that feel uncomfortable, the more shame you are likely to feel about those parts of your life. This shame, in turn, causes more discomfort and hence, more avoidance.
If you tend to worry and are easily overwhelmed, it can be significantly difficult to simply face tasks and situations and do the thing before you. This is not your fault and it’s not a joking matter. “Just do it” is a great motto for selling shoes, but it’s not so easy for anxious people to implement.
So what can you do today to head-on face those things in life you tend to avoid and do so without crumbling in a corner later?
Here are four ways to face your avoidance head on, right now and very gently.
1) Acknowledge your avoidance without beating yourself up.
So yes, maybe you don’t want to talk to your loved one about a particular topic. Perhaps you have not exercised or prayed or meditated in many moons. Maybe the bills are on the back burner and your friends wonder if you don’t like them any more. This happens to the very best of people. Simply acknowledge and own that a part of you is avoiding with as much compassion for your human self as possible.
If you get very upset with yourself or anyone else in this process, stop, breathe and offer yourself at least one moment of compassion.
2) Write down everything you imagine you’d like to do if you weren’t avoiding.
I offer this suggestion for a few reasons. Some people feel like they are lazy or avoiding when in reality, they are getting nearly everything done in fine fashion. For people who are highly driven or perfectionistic but don’t own this about themselves, one way of keeping on task is constantly telling yourself that you are avoiding things.
For others, there is so much shame beneath the surface, this exercise can help you get a glimpse of hidden pain and allow this part of you to be seen by you. Then you can access more help with a therapist to get feeling better.
And finally, you may just be so accustomed to avoiding that imagining moving forward in a more confident manner is a wild, new concept. If so, it will be much easier to move toward the picture that you create in your mind’s eye using all of your senses.
So play using your imagination.
For example, “In my fantasy world, I…
….open any bill, write a check and send it off.
…take my wife's hand and talk it through when I feel stressed.
…wake after 8 hours of sleep, hop in my sweats and head to the gym.
Just play with it. The purpose is not to make you feel guilty. This is an exercise to increase your creativity and curiosity.
Let your body and mind enjoy the play and possibility of doing everything in a way you would like to do it. You may feel inspired, ready to embody what you imagine. Or maybe the thoughts feel too threatening and cause increased shame. Conversely, you could discover that you are in reality facing a large portion of life but you habitually use the mantra that you are avoiding.
Just notice and write down what you discover.
3) Start with a small change in the easiest of the six targets.
So you’ve found some area of avoidance and you can see how you’d like the situation to feel different. Great!
Begin by choosing from your list of avoidances just one little action you can take that would feel really terrific (or at least good) when it’s done. Make it one with just enough challenge to pursue but not so much challenge that it is emotionally overwhelming for you. You really want to succeed on the smaller items here, so feel free to break any task down into a smaller portion.
Maybe you spend 1 minute meditating this week rather than an entire yoga/meditation session. Perhaps you do 50 push-ups before work instead of going to the gym. You could write your partner a letter of appreciation or reply to a couple of work emails.
A small change is important and totally enough in this situation. Repeat this change often and celebrate every time you replicate it. Remind yourself that you are aiming for cellular change – not an earthquake-like shift.
4) Respect not only your new behaviors but the parts of you that have been avoiding for so long.
Here’s the thing: Parts of us that avoid are not trying to make life difficult. Avoidance is trying to save your system from pain. Granted, avoiding things and people creates more pain over time, but in the moment, it can feel pretty darn good.
Show respect to the parts of you that learned way back when that this was a good way to feel better. Love them and let all of you know that as an adult, you can handle more than you could as a child.
When you feel the need to avoid, take the time to identify what this feels like in your body or mind. Breathe and offer a pause to your system.
When you make any tiny progress on what you were formerly avoiding, celebrate! You can celebrate by writing it down on your calendar with a huge elementary-school style star. Voice record your accomplishment in your phone memos. Or call a trusted friend (who’s in on the secret) to share your success. Whatever you do, allow yourself to be at least okay with what you’ve done. And if you can feel genuinely pleased, go for it!
Avoidance doesn’t need to run your life. And you don’t need to push it away or harshly blame yourself when it happens. This time, take a few gentle steps that move you forward confidently and begin building each new challenge on those.
In time you’ll see when you truly need a realistic break and take it without avoidance or guilt. You’ll also begin to gain strength and self-confidence as you step into the life areas you were once avoiding.
There are much more to help you resource your own self-confidence in my book: Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self Confidence.